Pollux and other Myrmidon like him were forged to be warriors. To be weapons. To stand on the front lines and protect the world from the alien threat. No one expected them to survive. But some did, and they bear the scars of that war. Pollux survived the invasion of an alien armada, and those who are gunning for him now are going to wish they’d let this old soldier just fade away.
The world was broken during the war with the Hyperion, but it’s been trying to put itself back together ever since humanity’s guns fell silent. From the darkened skies, to the shattered cities, to the toxic air, though, remnants of the conflict are everywhere.
Remnants like Pollux.
Created during the war, Pollux and other Myrmidon like him were forged to be warriors. To be weapons. To stand on the front lines and protect the world from the alien threat. No one expected them to survive. Most of them didn’t… but a lot of them did. And just like the world they had a hand in saving, they bear the scars of that war.
Adrift in a world he wasn’t made for, Pollux has been trying for years to forge some kind of life. But when he uncovers a conspiracy that threatens what little he’s managed to build, all those old instincts come flooding back. He survived the invasion of an alien armada, and those who are gunning for him now are going to wish they’d let this old soldier just fade away.
The Colossus Gate was built fifteen years before the Conflict. A million tons of concrete and steel made it the biggest of New Liberty’s great gates, and an impressive bulwark standing between the citizens below and the threat from above. It was the twin batteries of Tempest anti-aircraft guns flanking the gate, and the ridges of 80 millimeter Aries autocannon turrets with their barrels pointed at the skies that also made it the deadliest of these bastions. When opened to capacity, the gate could release thousands of troops, transports, armor, and air support from subterranean hangars in minutes. In the fading gloom, it looked like the skull of a tusked dragon; blunt, ugly, and terrifying in a single-minded way. It had never been decorated or disguised to be anything other than what it was, even now that the war was over and the threat it had been built to defend against destroyed.
In that way, it was just like us.
The jaws of the Colossus clanked and hissed as it opened. Huge, armored bulkheads slid away on rails big enough to support transport trains, pulled by massive anchor chains. Acrid air rushed into the vault, stinging my eyes and sticking in my throat. Helen coughed into her fist, her shoulders shaking from the force of her spasms. Castor snorted and spat, his eyes squeezed to slits. I clenched my teeth until my lungs stopped burning, exhaling through my nose. I tilted my head, and wiped the tears off on my shoulder.
“You need me to carry him for a while, Pollux?” Castor asked. I looked down at the huge, shrouded bundle in my arms. I flexed my shoulders, and felt the bone-deep ache that had settled into my muscles. I shook my head.
“I’ve got him,” I said.
“Are we ready?” Helen asked, her voice raw as she adjusted her satchel with one hand, and wiped tears from her cheeks with the other.
“As ever,” I said.
We stepped into the ashes of the world above. Beyond the gate, stained cement and broken blacktop ran away in frozen rivers, warped and melted by constant acid rains. Stripped, rotting hulks that had once been vehicles lined the streets. Their windows were broken, and whatever paint they’d worn was long since scoured away. The skeletons of old, prefab barracks buildings stood like rusting rib cages, and crippled structures whose signs and purposes had long since worn away sat like broken teeth in a rotting jaw. The sagging chain link fence that marked the edge of the base’s territory had fallen in some places, and been cut away in others. Concrete overpasses arced and fell like gray scale rainbows past the fence, and beyond them stood the crumbling spires that scraped at the low-hanging sky. Lights still burned in this part of the Rhodes District, though. The sleek, electric shells of transports sped over slender elevated tracks, and glass walls sheltered the suspended walkways that led between what few air-locked and inhabited buildings there were. This part of the city was like an old warhorse with leprosy; dying, but far from dead.
I walked east, passing through the growing shadow of the great gate. Castor took point five paces ahead to my left, and Helen the rear guard five paces behind to my right. Grit crunched under our boots, and a wet wind that tasted of sea salt and sulfur slapped our faces. Ground fog swirled around our knees, and thunder grumbled over the ocean. We’d covered one klick when heat lightning rippled through the low-hanging clouds like a brain storm, and we saw them. Five black figures, standing at parade rest. Tall and broad, they were arrayed in a semi-circle around a charred, stone monument topped with a bronze torch. The torch had guttered out completely, the gas feed cut off. It had been deemed a waste for a memorial that no one was every going to come see.
“Well fancy meeting you here,” Castor said to the iron soldiers of the Honor Guard.
Castor stepped to one side of the monument, and Helen to the other. They dug their fingers beneath the lid of the huge box, straining until the heavy granite plug scraped out of its resting place. Ashes danced in the wind as they set the ton of stone lid aside.
“Easy now,” Helen said, pulling her satchel off over her head. She cupped one end of my bundle, and Castor took the other. All three of us lowered him until he was stretched out in the hollow interior atop the ashes of all the others we’d laid to rest in there before him.
I parted the shroud, then put my hands on the lip of the false tomb as I looked down at Romulus. Shadows lived in the hollows around his eyes, and beneath the sharp crags of his cheekbones. His neck looked too frail to support his skull, and his lips were speckled with powder burns. He’d been a titan in life, but wrapped in the mortuary cloth he looked like a child clutching a ragged blanket for comfort. A lost child who’d screamed into a gun when the world went dark around him. His eyes were open, and they stared up at me from the hole I’d laid him in. I stroked my hand over his smooth skull, and reached out with my mind for the man who’d once lived inside it. It was like sticking my finger in a dead power socket.
Helen put her hand on my shoulder. Castor leaned his forearms on the lid to my right.
“Take a breath, Pollux,” he said. “You carried him a long way. He’ll wait another few minutes if he has to.”
“He’s waited long enough,” I said. I stood, and my back creaked. I held my hand out to Helen. “Let’s send him on his way.”
Helen handed out the flares. We struck them, placing the burning brands in sconces once reserved for flags at the feet of the black statues. One for the Gunner, who kept our fallen safe. One for the Medic, who would take away their pains. One for the Dispatcher, who’d send word ahead, one for the Scout, who’d take point, and one for the Leader, who would carry their responsibility on the journey. The statues had no faces in the black armor they wore. They had no gender, either. They stood between two-and-a-half and three-and-a-half meters tall, and the details of their joints and weapons had been worn down over more than a decade of exposure to harsh elements. The red lights of the flares flickered across the make-believe saints, breathing false life into the towering figures. In the dimness, it felt almost like the dead were stirring from their rest. Like they had come back to welcome one of their own.
After the flares were in place, I reached into my pocket for Romulus’s unit tags. I closed his eyes, and weighted them with the metal slugs stamped with his name, rank, and batch number. Helen pulled on a pair of latex gloves. She removed a canister from her satchel, unscrewed the casing, and broke the seal. The Harridan 72 smelled like benzene gone rotten, and the chemical slurry poured thick as blood when she anointed Romulus with it. She tossed the canister into the pyre, along with her gloves. We stepped backward so the statues were on one side of the stone trough, and we were on the other. Not so long ago there would have been enough of us present at this sending off to make a complete circle. Now we did the best we could with what we had left.
Castor struck the last flare. The magnesium in his burned white instead of red, creating a circle of bright light. He offered it to me, and I accepted. He nodded. Helen nodded. We faced the center, shoulders back, boot heels no more than a dozen centimeters apart.
“Present, arms!” I called. “Order, arms!”
Helen and Castor’s hands snapped to salute, and I tossed the flare. It arced through the wind, spun once, and kissed Romulus’s chest. The pyre ignited with a muffled whoosh, and for a moment Romulus was the only bright thing left in the descending twilight. Then he faded, his body sinking into itself until there was nothing more than dust in the center of a dying star. It happened fast, the flames eating everything in under a minute. I saluted, and behind us I heard the heavy impact of seven autocannons. When the sound of the first volley had faded, they fired again, and then a third time after that. The echoes died, and the flames within the stone box died as well. A drizzling rain started falling. Helen and Castor replaced the plug, and the torch atop it sputtered for a few minutes as the last of the internal flames sought an escape from its prison. I lowered my arm, refusing to let it tremble until it was back down at my side.
We stood there for a long time, statues of flesh instead of steel, watching the fire. It would go out soon enough, and I wanted to bear witness while it still burned. The rain fell a little harder, and a gray sheet swept in from the ocean. I ignored the unpleasant kiss of the polluted water on my skin, and the oncoming rush of the storm at my back. The torch burned on, and in its fading light I read the plaque affixed to the front of the memorial.
This memorial is dedicated to the brave Myrmidon who fell during the Hyperion War.
Your sacrifices will not be forgotten as long as this flame burns.
Myrmidon. The word was a designation, and we had one just like everything else Council Research and Development had built in their secret bunkers and hidden labs when war preparations began. We’d been bathed in the living energy of hostile beings that had come from beyond the stars, helpless in our glass wombs. The essence of the Hyperion made us bigger, stronger, and let us interface with the salvaged technology of the alien race in ways no one else on our side of the Conflict could. We had been the front-line when the alien armada had finally descended, and we were the wall the invaders had broken against. We weren’t soldiers. Soldiers volunteered. Soldiers stood because they’d made a choice. We were weapons. We were things to be used, and discarded once we’d served our purpose. We’d been engineered with scientists as our mothers, and drill masters as our fathers. We fought like they’d taught us to, and in the end it was the invaders who had gone down in defeat. Now we were forgotten; living relics forever marked in a world we had helped create.
Castor turned up the collar on his jacket, tugging down the bill of his salvager cap as he walked over to me. Helen shook some of the smoldering raindrops from her hands, jamming them deep into her coat pockets.
“Are we going to stand here and watch till it’s done?” Castor asked, leaning close.
I glanced from Castor to Helen. I watched the torch dance in the rain.
“You have somewhere to be?” I asked.
Castor shrugged. “Not particularly, but if that little dam breaker gets biblical they just might close the door on us.”
“There are other ways back in,” Helen said. Castor nodded, conceding the point.
Neither of them said anything for a time. The rain fell a little harder, and a claxon sounded. I shook my head slowly, water sloshing off my hat brim every time my head changed direction.
“Romulus always told us not to hold vigil after we carried Remus,” I said. They nodded. “All right. No reason to keep the D.O. waiting for us.”
We headed back on the bounce, the downpour biting hard at our heels. The outer gate was mostly closed by the time we made it back. Even so, there was room for the three of us abreast, and all our ghosts besides to make our way back in. The vault doors boomed closed one after another, and huge screws turned with sounds like the gnashing of gigantic teeth to seal them shut. The wind and rain went silent behind us as we entered the decontamination chamber. Chem mists fogged from shiny nozzles, and fans sucked out all the outside air. Purified atmosphere took its place, and the outer door opened. Helen went through first, followed by Castor. I joined them a moment later.
Castor reached inside his jacket, and removed a black, vacuum-sealed pouch. It bulged oddly, and when he broke the seal, three apples spilled into his hand. They were a deep red, and the flesh looked firm and juicy. He tossed one to Helen, and another to me.
“Where do you keep getting these?” Helen asked.
“Trade secret,” Castor said, taking the fruit between his thumb and index finger, rubbing it on the inside of his wrist. He held it up, and the smile fell from his voice. “To Romulus.”
Helen and I repeated the toast, and as one we ate our offerings. The skin broke, and juice sprayed onto my tongue. My mouth buzzed pleasantly from the sugar, and I swallowed. We dropped the stems into a floor grate, and set off for the far end of the hangar.
Armor and air power loomed large on either side of the staging floor. The massive Gorgon H-45’s sat in clear-cut ranks like stainless steel rocs, and behind them were the huge treads of the Goliath rail tanks. Bulky and slow, once deployed the electromagnetic war machines would lay down a field of fire that would take a heavy toll on any ground force foolish enough to charge the Gate. Sleek Artemis class fighters hung in suspended harnesses like sleeping falcons, and the burnished hides of Argo armored personnel carriers glistened in their loading bays. Isolated troops of grease monkeys and nut busters crawled over the mechanized monsters, checking fluid levels, testing engines, and making sure that in the unlikely event the beasts needed to be roused that they’d come out with guns blazing. Most of the techs kept their eyes on their work, but one or two saluted us with their smudged, stained hands. We returned the gestures, but didn’t slow our pace.
We passed thirty smaller side entrances to the main floor, but we didn’t stop until we reached the far end of the gate. It was a choke point made up of three screening layers, and separate doors that could all be easily locked and defended in case of a breach. Soldiers in black kit with slung rifles buzzed us through without a word. They nodded as we passed. We nodded back. The final gate was a steel bulkhead that would take some truly heavy ordinance to even make a dent in. Behind a blast shield stood the gate operators, and the duty officer tasked with keeping an eye on the Gate. The operators all wore the black and gold uniforms of army regulars, and none of them stopped or stared at us as we approached. The lieutenant, an older man with bristle-brush black hair and a Southern hemisphere complexion who stood around 1.8 meters, stepped out from behind the shield. He clicked his heels and snapped a crisp salute, tilting his head back so he was looking at our faces instead of our abdomens.
“Major Pollux,” the duty captain said. “Captain Castor, Captain Helen.”
“We’re still retired, Lieutenant Waller,” I said, returning the gesture. “At ease. Did anything happen while we were off-site?”
“Quiet as the- everything was quiet, sir.”
“That’s good to hear,” I said, as if I hadn’t heard the sudden change of direction in his speech. “I heard the cannons firing.”
Waller didn’t smile, but his dark eyes glittered. “Weapons test, sir. It was re-scheduled to this evening.”
“And the drones will be patrolling the area as usual?” Helen asked.
Waller nodded. “They were late getting into the air, Sir. Unavoidable technical difficulties. Hopefully nothing which would violate regulation happened out there while our eyes were closed.”
“That would be a shame,” Castor said, the corners of his mouth practically twitching as he fought a smile.
I nodded. Waller nodded. It wasn’t the first time we’d done this dance. Four years ago the tribunal handed down ordinances forbidding certain practices when it came to the disposition of remains, particularly regarding the bodies of myrmidon. There were still those in the ranks who believed a soldier’s death should be honored, though, regardless of what the brass had to say about the peculiarities of the ritual involved. Helen, Castor, and I saluted. Waller returned it.
“Log us out, Lieutenant,” I said. “The Gate is yours.”
“Yes sir,” Waller said, stepping back behind the shield. A moment later a buzzer sounded, and the blast doors swung open for us. Like everything else at the Colossus Gate, the access doors were larger than standard regulation size. It was meant to admit a three-man team abreast, but the three of us still had to duck beneath the lintel. We did not, however, need to turn sideways.
The tunnels beneath the Colossus Gate were wide, crude, and ugly. Bio-lights stuffed with glowing algae filled the corridors, providing serviceable light while simultaneously scrubbing contaminants from the air. The stone had been chewed and flattened underfoot, and the corridors were large enough that small transports could make it through with room to spare. Tiny cameras scanned the tunnels, and recessed security gates could be sprung to seal a corridor and stop any threat behind a solid barricade. There were stairways and lifts every hundred meters or so, and they were both wide and functional. Inter-level access here lacked the polish and sheen seen in other parts of the city, but like everything else that was by design. Fort Carter had been built for functionality, and nowhere was that clearer than in the shadow of the Gate.
We walked briskly, falling into lockstep out of childhood habit. We kept to the center of the corridor, where the arch was highest, ducking beneath structural braces and the unlit emergency lamps. We passed sub-floor motor pools where problematic vehicles were being stripped and drained, along with Gate barracks where the change of shift did their two weeks of waiting for something to happen. The rec rooms were spaced out, filled to capacity with every set of off-duty boots who weren’t sleeping. Soldiers played games, shuffled hands of cards, or crashed out on couches with the latest text releases. Most of the others sat in tight clusters, absorbed in vid screens playing everything from news clips to music casts. I reflected that the rough-carved caves had been squared-off since the old days, and the walls were now covered in colorful paint instead of being left hard and bare. The old, war-time furnishings had been replaced by smooth, padded things that looked comfortable, but impractical. I shook my head, put my hands in my pockets, and kept walking.
“Do you think they feel it?” I asked the back of Helen’s head.
“Hard not to,” Castor said, rapping his knuckles on a beam as he passed under it. The knock rang dully, like a striker hitting the side of a busted bell. “All that weight over their heads.”
“I don’t think that’s what he meant,” Helen said.
Castor shrugged one shoulder, and stopped in front of the freight elevator we’d originally ridden up in. He punched an access code into the pad, using his little finger to avoid mashing the wrong keys. The pad beeped its acceptance, and the car rose.
“If I had to take a guess, I’d say some do,” Castor said, leaning his shoulder on the wall and folding his arms while we waited. “The ones reading books in their bunks by themselves, probably. For most of them, though, this is just a cushy two-week rotation. One where they get to stare out at nothing for a watch, play with big guns, and catch a break from PT.”
I nodded, but didn’t say anything. The car arrived, and the grille drew back. I stepped in first, followed by Helen. Castor got into the lift last, punching in the code for our destination. It was a close fit in the car, but nowhere near as intimate as it had been when we’d had Romulus with us. I squeezed my temples between the thumb and forefinger of my left hand.
“You need something for that?” Castor asked, idly spitting an apple seed out through the lift’s skeletal wall. It smacked the stone, and bounced down into darkness.
“No,” I said, shaking my head slightly. “Not yet.”
Castor nodded, shucking his cap and running a hand through his thin, white hair. Helen leaned against the rear brace, stretching her neck left and right until it popped loudly. I squeezed my head, not sure if I was trying to make the pain go away, or if I wanted to make it worse. The car stopped, opening up in the rear corner of the sub-level six vehicle storage garage. The space reeked of methane and petrol, and the thick, greasy aroma that clung to machine parts no matter how often maintenance was performed on them. A flatbed rumbled past us toward the exit, and a battery-driven gear hauler following along behind like a squire would his knight. Neither vehicle slowed as we stepped out of the car, and made our way toward the south wall where Castor had parked his temporarily borrowed Salvager V-72 transport rig.
“Anyone up for a night out?” Castor asked, tugging his keys off his belt and idly spinning the ring around his finger.
“I’ve got an early shift at the orchard,” Helen said. “If I’m going to be even fifty percent I need to go down soon.”
“I shall refrain from suggesting it would be easy for you to go down,” Castor said. He turned to me, eyebrows raised. “How about it? The Junkyard’s no more than half an hour out from the Tower, and the first drink’s on me.”
I shook my head once. “Got somewhere to be tonight.”
“Is that so?” he asked, head tilting slightly. “Heading down to The Jungle?”
“Didn’t you get shot there a few months ago?” Castor asked.
“Shot at,” I corrected. “I could hold your hand if you’re scared?”
“Too much action for me,” Castor said, dropping me a wink. He turned, unlocked the door, and hauled himself up into the cab. A moment later, the rear doors opened on hydraulic wings, and Helen and I clambered into the back. We each took up two of the six jump seats, but other than that we fit just fine. Helen slapped the rear wall of the cargo bay twice, and the engine grumbled to life. The rear doors closed, and latched themselves in place. Castor reversed into the aisle, shifted gears, and started the low, slow trek home.
Even from the back of the hauler I could track our progress. We angled up to the main traffic roads on the second level, and Castor turned north. The road was wide, sturdy, and had been designed for transporting equipment far heavier than the hauler we were using. Traffic was thick but flowing, made up of a combination of base-only vehicles carrying on-duty personnel, and civilian vehicles that were likely heading off-base after the work day. Castor kept his speed within regulation limits, much to the irritation of some of the other drivers. I closed my eyes, but the dark place in the center of my head wasn’t the retreat as it usually was. It felt too close in there, the mental walls more like the blocks of a cell than the comforting confines of a den. Helen touched my knee, and I looked up.
“Something wrong?” I asked, noticing we weren’t moving.
“You went away,” she said.
I blinked several times, and worked my tongue around in my mouth. I was parched, and I coughed when I tried to swallow. I took a deep breath, and held it. I worked my jaw, and flexed my fingers. I had pins and needles. I frowned, focusing on them until they went away.
“Where are we?” I asked.
“The Low-Way exit, waiting on inspection.”
I nodded. Wherever it was I went when my synapses glitched I hadn’t been there very long this time. I sat up straighter and held Helen’s gaze. She looked into my eyes, checking to be sure I was clear, alert, and focused. The line moved forward. The squawk boxes above our heads crackled, and Castor’s voice came out in a stereo warble.
“We’re up next kids,” he said. “Standard sweep and wave. If they ask for ID, just hand it to them.”
I snorted. Helen sighed. Between the banners and parades, the marches, speeches, and hours of video footage of our training programs, there was no one in the city who couldn’t recognize us on sight. Even if they didn’t know our names, it was difficult to miss someone who usually stood a meter or more above the rest of the crowd, and who displayed marked oculocutaneous albinism. We both settled in to wait, backs against the wall and hands in plain view on our knees.
It took the team outside two minutes to complete the exterior sweep. I heard the muffled voice of the squad leader, and while I couldn’t hear his exact words, I’d done the drill often enough to fill them in. There was a rap on the back doors, and then the buzzer as Castor flicked the opening switch. Three gate guards looked in at us, their faces inscrutable behind masked helmets. They stood equidistant from one another, holding their weapons ready but with the barrels pointed down and away. Each had a bulky flak jacket on, but their ranks were displayed prominently on their collars and shoulders.
“Everything all right, lance corporal?” I asked, addressing the stocky figure in the center.
“Yes sir,” she said, her voice nasal through her face guard. She slung her weapon and saluted. The other two followed suit. Helen nodded to them. The doors closed again, latching themselves in place again. The same muffled voice said one last thing to Castor. The engine cleared its throat, and we rumbled over the threshold to the world of civilian life. Helen sighed, massaging the back of her neck. I sat quietly, focusing on my hands so that I stayed firmly rooted in the here and now.
It didn’t take long to get where we were going once we were off-base. The hauler picked up speed as we hit the Low-Way, swaying as Castor switched lanes and took the occasional access loop he was supposed to stay out of when he wasn’t on official business. It took roughly half an hour until the nose pointed downward, and the air brakes took hold. The speakers crackled just as we shuddered to a full stop.
“Helios Tower, now disembarking,” Castor said, his tone round and jovial. “All your needs with none of your wants!”
I popped open the rear doors, and stepped out. The transport was stopped in front of the Tower’s southern bank of sub-level doors, up against the curb and still taking up most of the road. A few cabs idled, waiting on fares, and a short line filled the cul-de-sac. No one honked their horns, though a tiny transport made a run for the sun and nearly kissed the back of the trailer as it slid on past with two of its wheels in the opposite gutter. Some of the foot traffic stopped to stare, but not much. This was where we lived, and even people who didn’t share the residence with us knew that. Helen and I closed up the doors, checked the street, and stepped around to the driver’s side. Castor had the window down and was turned as much as the cab space would allow to look out.
“You’re really going to make me drink alone tonight?” he asked.
“We’ll find a day,” I said, offering my hand. “Have one for me.”
“Not tonight,” Castor said, taking my hand. “I’m drinking to remember, not to forget.”
Helen put her hand over ours, and we held that tableau for a moment. Castor pulled away, and shifted gears. He checked both his mirrors, and headed back toward the Low-Way. Helen and I waded through the trailer’s exhaust, stepping onto the curb as the traffic flow started up again.
“Do you think he’ll be all right?” Helen asked.
I shrugged. “He always has been before.”
She nodded, running a hand through the platinum spiderwebs of her hair. I kept walking, waiting for her to get to what was really on her mind.
“What’s your E.T.A. for Babylon proper?”
“I don’t have to be there for a few hours,” I said.
“Would you be willing to come by my quarters?”
“Your quarters are right next door,” I said. “I have to walk past you before I leave.”
“I know the building’s layout,” she said. “I was looking for a yes or no.”
I took off my hat, and shook the last few droplets of rain off the brim. The caustic water tingled as it touched my fingertips. I ran my palm back over my bare scalp, and when I tried to swallow there was a tightness in my throat. Helen took my hand, and I felt a slight spark as what lived inside her reached for what lived inside me. I put my hat back on, and squeezed her hand.
“Yes,” I said.
The sensation was like waking up from sleep, and into a face full of winter wind. I was flying, I was falling, and I didn’t know which way was up. My pulse was sedate, my mind was on fire, and I felt like I’d just been born. I was fresh and new, but something deep inside I’d taken for granted had been severed in order to turn we back into me. I smelled ozone, and tasted tears.
Merging was like grief; sometimes you needed it even if you didn’t want it.
“Was I crying?” Helen asked, reaching up to touch her face.
“Yeah,” I said. I rubbed my face with my right hand, and it came away damp. “Me too.”
“At least neither of us threw up this time,” she said. I nodded slightly, then thought better of it.
We lay on her sleeping mat for several minutes, each taking long breaths and swallowing as the bedroom swam back into focus around us. My muscles were watery, and my heart rate was too low. My mouth tasted like a dry cell battery. My throat clicked when I tried to swallow. I moved my left foot rhythmically; a simple trigger for getting a tighter hold on myself during the free-fall period that came before and after a session where I pooled my consciousness with someone else’s. I made my left hand let go of Helen’s right, and skin peeled away from the connection point.
“Status?” she asked.
“I feel like the breech end of a blown barrel,” I said, examining how many layers of skin I’d lost on my left palm. I stopped bouncing my foot, and let out a long, slow breath. “I’ll live. You?”
“I have a firing range behind my eyes, and my tongue tastes like latrine duty,” she said. “How long were we under?”
I closed my eyes, and looked for an answer. Sense of time was the first thing to go during a Merge. The past and present were jumbled up, leaving everything bare, open, and intense. It was a pooling of thoughts and feelings until there was no separation left between those involved. There was no beginning, no end, just a seamless, liquid whole of experiences. I knew what she knew, and she knew what I knew. It was intimate beyond description, and it offered comfort, understanding, and a blissful end to I for a brief time. It was one of our mysteries the men in white coats had desperately wanted to solve, but the why of Merging had never much mattered to us. We could do it, so we did.
“Judging from my hand, I’d guess about forty-five minutes,” I said, glancing at the far table where the old-fashioned alarm had been set up to pull us back to ourselves. Its rhythmic ticking had ceased, and the metal hands had drawn together to point in the same direction. “I don’t think the clock was out of the spark zone.”
Helen groaned, and rolled onto her side. I watched the muscles in her back as she stood, and made herself stretch. Long, lean, and graceful she knew where every part of her was in relation to every other part. She was naked, her pale skin showing flashes of blue veins beneath. I closed my eyes, and focused on the electromagnetic thrum of her heart. It beat in time with mine for another few moments, but then my pulse stuttered back into its regular rhythm. We were well and truly separate again.
“Get up, Pollux,” Helen said. “Let me look you over.”
I opened my eyes, and got up. It took me longer than it normally would have, but I managed it without stumbling. I stretched my fingers, my arms, my back, and my legs, checking for any muscle or tendon damages. I paid particular attention to my balance, and I made sure nothing felt torn or pulled. The more of us there were in a Merge the less strain there was on every individual body, but with only the two of us we couldn’t afford to stay linked for long before our anatomy started eating itself. Helen looked me over, digging her thumbs into the back of my neck, the hollows of my wrists, and the backs of my knees. Finally she stood and hooked her sparse mane behind her ears.
“Anything?” I asked.
“Not a hair out of place,” she said, cracking a tired smile at the old joke. I rubbed my cheeks and chin, my eyebrows, and my skull. They were smooth as the day I’d been born. Just like the rest of me. Helen leaned her forehead against mine, and closed her eyes. Her thoughts hummed against my brow like a reactor behind a buckling shield. “Your nightmare came back.”
“Do you think it’s because you went off your meds?”
I shrugged. “The dream came whether I was on them or not.”
“What does it mean?”
I thought of the dream. The empty, blasted field, and the tunnel of armored warriors standing still and silent. Soldiers of death, waiting for me to walk among them to take my place at the end of the line. I worked my jaw, and sighed. “I don’t know, Hel. I really don’t know.”
Helen nodded, and her nose bumped against mine. The remnants of a tear dripped, and ran across my lips. I couldn’t tell if it was hers or mine. “We’re getting dark.”
“But we aren’t black yet,” I said, cupping the back of her neck and squeezing gently.
“Not yet,” she agreed. She squeezed me back, then let go. “Get us a drink will you? I’ve got cider in the fridge.”
I padded to her kitchen and opened her fridge. Two industrial jugs of cider stood side-by-side on the bottom shelf, seals intact. I checked the expiration dates, saw they were the same, and broke open the jug on the left. I poured half a measure of the sharp-scented mash into two glasses, and replaced the container. I stepped back into the bedroom, and handed her a glass. She clinked it against my own.
“To those who were,” Helen said.
“To those who are left,” I replied.
We drank. Helen shivered as the cold concoction slid down her gullet. She set her glass on top of her chest of drawers, and sat down hard on her sleeping mat. She raked one hand through her hair, and bit her bottom lip hard enough that bright blood rushed to the surface.
“You going to be all right?” I asked.
Helen nodded slowly, never opening her eyes. “Just shadows and dust between my ears. I’ll have another glass, chase it with a Z tab, and be me again by the time I have to leave for my shift. Go see your girl, I’ll be fine.”
I smiled at the mention of my girl. “You sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure,” she said.
“If I need to,” she said, shooing me off with one hand. “Go on. You told her you’d be there tonight, and if you wait any longer you won’t be able to make it.”
I poured each of us another glass before I got dressed. I stepped into the hall, and walked the eight paces between her quarters and mine. I pressed my thumb against the wall scanner. The door clicked open, and the lights dialed up at the first sign of movement. A low chime hummed along the rafters to announce my entrance. I took two steps across the threshold, and an old memory popped in my brain like a bubble on the surface of a tar pit. A shouted command, barely heard over the roar of gunfire, and the exultation that always came with a perfect head shot on one of the moving target dummies. I shook my head slowly, gritting my teeth until the ghost drifted past.
Therapeutic as Merging could be, it left a mess in your head. It dumped out all the memories everyone had, and stirred them into a slurry, but when you finally unplugged it left all of your wires crossed. My head would sort itself out, given time and a long night’s sleep, but sometimes I’d touch a live wire, and the current ran through me. The invasive thoughts, the stolen memories, were Echoes. Some of them were mild. Some of them weren’t. The worst part was it was even-odds which kind was coming to visit once you disconnected.
I made my way to the bathroom, and popped open the medicine cabinet. I cleared off the top shelf, and reached up under the upper lip until I found the small tin held in place with a magnet. I popped the lid, then shook three tiny brown discs into my palm. I put one in my mouth, swallowed, then put the other two away again. I took deep, slow breaths. I drank two glasses of water, and relieved myself. I checked my wall terminal for any messages. There were none. No real surprise there. I logged out, closed the terminal, flicked the light panel, and left.
The hallways in the top floors of Helios Tower were straight and wide, with arched ceilings that would have been decorative in any other building. The carpet was thin, the paint was drab, and the doors each had one letter and one number to identify them. Most of those doors had been closed for years, but Echoes still resounded as I passed them. The hot rush of pleasure as Cassandra finished decorating the first personal quarters she’d ever had. The numb ache where Melas’s right arm ended, and the mangled stump began. The long night’s pleasure as Electra listened to the rain, Nyx curled up next to her as music played in the dark. The quiet calm of Ajax’s morning meditations in a place where no unwanted noise intruded. The stink of sweat and cheap wine as Hector struggled to find a meaning in a life without a command structure. On and on they came; familiar specters who wanted to be remembered. Between the chlorpromazine and the cider, though, they were just shades. I heard them moan, but they were toothless, far-off things. Little more than the dreams you had in dreams.
I thumbed the button for the lift, and looked at the vid screen at the end of the hall. It showed a high-definition camera feed of the outside world; an illusion meant to distract people from the fact that every inhabited building was airtight and sealed. Even on the top three floors of Helios Tower, one of the biggest hubs in the Northeast section of the Rhodes District, there wasn’t a single functional window. It was like the tower had been drawn whole out of the Earth, and hollowed out. The residents inside living and working like ants. The image never failed to make me smile, but the expression had grown bitter over the years. The car came, and shuttled me down the anthill.
The main lobby was an open-air atrium, tiled in mismatched checkerboard and polished to a parade shine. Squat pillars supported a mezzanine balcony, and shops did a brisk business beneath the overhang. Public access terminals buzzed with the day’s happenings, and the clock hanging above the splashing fountain chimed the hour. Dozens of locals browsed the goods, and perhaps three times as many tourists lounged at tables and on benches, eating, conversing, or just passing through on their way to other parts of the three-block structure. Signs pointed the way toward neighboring complexes, and stairways led up to enclosed walking tubes, or down to the Low-Way where residents could access vehicle storage, or catch a cab or bus as needed.
I walked slowly, rolling my steps from my heels to the balls of my feet. I kept my head down, and buried my hands in my coat pockets. I made no sudden movements. Clarice and her cleaning crew leaned on their mops and waved at me, their tangled hair tucked under kerchiefs, their faces damp with sweat. Abhimand caught my eye over his newspaper from behind his counter, and his beard split in a toothy grin. His assistant looked up, and the younger man gave me a solemn nod. A pair of boys I didn’t know gaped at me while the man chaperoning them tried not to do the same. I nodded to each of them in turn, and kept moving forward.
I walked past the fountain, where the clean smell of tumbling water covered up the scents of buffing wax and oily food left too long on dirty grills. I felt phantom grease on my hands as somewhere in my memory I slid the firing pin from a Griffon 72 cannon mount, looking for a flaw in the mechanism. Another dozen strides brought me to the edge of the central cross breeze, where I had to lean around hanging signs and ford the stream of foot traffic. I remembered the feeling of date wine splashing across my tongue, and I heard the last few bars of a battle hymn echoing off stone chambers carved deep into a mountainside base. Thirty steps took me out the main doors, and into the double-decker shell of the train station. I fed credits into a machine until it spit out a ticket. I checked to be sure I’d bought the right one, then trudged up the stairs.
There were people waiting on the platform, though not many at this time of night. A mother with one child at her hip, and another in her arms, stood near the far end of the concrete dock. A gray-haired man in spider-silk overalls with grease stains in the skin of his knuckles leaned against a support post, speaking to two younger men dressed in the same work clothes. A woman in a damp, standard-issue slicker, and the ugly, square-toed shoes of the engineering corps sat on one of a dozen benches next to a boy in a flap jacket who probably wasn’t old enough to ride the rail without a guardian. No one said anything, but there was a hiccough in conversation when I entered. A skipped beat you couldn’t miss, if you knew how to listen for it.
I found a place to stand where my head wouldn’t hit the support beams, and listened to the storm outside. In my head, memories chased each other like rain drops across a window. A wind from a lifetime ago buffeted me as I dropped over the African coast, and I heard a whispered thought that it was more like flying than falling. A nurse jabbed a probe into my deltoid, and took readings while he asked me questions that didn’t seem relevant to anything. The weight of medals and commendations dragging on my uniform tunic. They seemed so much heavier than the weapons I’d carried to earn them. The Echoes came and went, whispering like waves as they slid back out to sea on an ebb tide of memory.
Behind me, a big man in dungarees and a plastiche leather jacket with armor weave in the elbows and shoulders mounted the stairs. The strut stuttered out of his steps when he saw me, and he edged away down the platform as if that had been his goal all along. A young woman with copper curls and corrective lenses bumped into me as she tried to walk and read her hand terminal at the same time. When she looked up to apologize she realized she was staring at my hip, and tilted her head back even further. I nodded to her, and she took a seat on one of the benches without saying anything. Twelve more people came up the stairs, and four of them decided to wait for the next transport. Three of them stared at me like I was a zoo exhibit who’d jumped the fence. Fifteen minutes later the air lock opened, and let the train in.
The High Line Express swooped into the station like a predator with air brakes. A stainless steel raptor, the front of the train bore a spiked beak that swept back into a sleek, ten-car body etched with drag-reducing plumage. Compressed air jets blew it dry, and it steamed for a long moment before the doors opened and disgorged the passengers. Officers and laborers, clerical workers and students, they were universally tired, worn, and footsore. They disembarked on the far side of the tracks, and the near doors opened a few moments later to allow new passengers inside.
I waited until the first car was empty, then bent, scanned my ticket, and shuffled awkwardly to the rear-facing front seat just to the left of the fire door. The engineer announced there would be no further stops in the Rhodes District, and read off the estimated times for the next three stations once we’d crossed over into the Gardens District. The young woman in glasses approached the lead car, hesitated, then entered. She sat in the front forward-facing bench on the opposite side of the carriage, and tapped her screen several times with a forefinger. The doors were beginning to close when the man in the petro-chemical jacket slid inside as well. He flopped onto a bench halfway up the cabin just as the doors vacuum-sealed, and the train’s forward motion began.
The High Line soared over the tracks, barreling through the broken city. Glass breezeways whipped by like glowing veins in the darkness, and below us the gutters swirled with brackish runoff. The black bulk of ferries plied the channel, and the halogen eyes of scrapper transports flitted along the streets like feral dogs hunting for treasure in the trash. Lightning crashed, throwing everything into stark, simple detail for a moment, before it all faded back into gloom. Thunder stumbled after it, lost in the blackness of the sky. I drummed my fingers on my left knee, moving from thumb to little finger, and then back to the beginning. It was a nervous habit, and all the worse for not even being one of mine. I hoped it would fade along with the other Echoes.
The train curved north, skipping over the water before arcing around the bay on a northeastern bearing. Dark waves churned beneath dark storm clouds, and it was impossible to tell where the sky ended and the water began. I counted the mile markers, and peered into the maelstrom. A shadow that was little more than a silhouette stood far out in the water. I focused on it, straining my eyes so I wouldn’t lose the location. Lightning flashed again, and I saw her.
She stood on a crumbling island surrounded by the rising tide. Her skin was pitted with grime, and her robes worn to ribbons around her sandaled feet. The spokes of her crown had eroded, and one arm lay broken on the ground like a sacrifice to the gods of the old world. She held the shards of a guttered torch aloft in her remaining arm, her streaked face staring out toward the ocean. There was a dignity in her refusal to bend, even though she’d broken, and it sent a chill through me every time I saw her.
I looked away from the window, and glanced at the wave view embedded behind shatter-resistant polycarbonate in the car’s upper wall. An attractive woman of indeterminate age and mixed ancestry was talking about steel shortages, and how the Civil Service Bureau was attempting to recruit more salvagers and technicians to increase both the intake and the output from construction crews in an effort to deal with burgeoning population growth. High Market was experiencing atmospheric leakages, as well as a drop in air quality, but resources to fix it were scarce. Residents were encouraged to stay inside, and where that wasn’t possible, to take protective measures to minimize their exposure. There were no food shortages, or at least that was the official line, and academy graduation rates were up five percent. There was talk of General Joseph Rand stepping down from the tribunal, and likely candidates for replacement seemed to be a topic of conversation. General Harold Blake was a popular contender, and the way the newscasters talked about him it was as if he might represent a changing of the guard from those who fought in the Conflict, to those who were tasked with rebuilding the world now that it was over. I tuned it out, letting the words wash over me without letting them in.
From the corner of my eye I noticed the redhead glancing my way. Every time she looked at me the thumb and forefinger of her right hand plucked at a balding place on her left sleeve. Her lips parted twice, but she turned away without saying anything. I pretended I didn’t notice, keeping my eyes on the screen and letting my gaze drift to the middle distance. The man watched her try not to watch me, and his face grew more and more sour the longer the charade went on. I noted that, and gathered my feet under me. The lug stood up as the train cut east over the stretch of water between the mainland and the island that was the Gardens District. He tucked his right thumb behind his belt, and held onto the support pole with his left hand. Once he had his balance, he sauntered up the aisle.
“You X-ray him any harder, sunnyside, the tank’s gonna get cancer.” He smirked as he walked, pushing his chest out and keeping his stance wide. Part of it was likely for balance, but it was mostly to fill as much space with his body and his presence as he could. The woman blanched, drawing in on herself as if avoiding a blow. The man leaned against the pole supporting her seat, leering down at the top of her head. The edges of a black tattoo crept up his neck, but I couldn’t make out the pattern to see if it was decoration or a gang brand. “Seems big man ain’t pinging you back. Ain’t no reason to be a missed connection, though, if you don’t wanna be?”
She said nothing, but her breathing ticked up a notch like she was getting ready to run. He stepped in front of her, exaggerating the sway of the train with his hips. Her lips thinned, pressing her mouth into a bare line.
“You need a plug-n-play that sore, pretty thing like you got no need to go to the zoo for it.”
I took off my hat and set it on the seat next to me. He caught the movement and looked my way, the smirk blossoming into a full-size sneer as he gripped his crotch with one meaty hand.
“Maybe this is what you’re browsing for, eh?” he said to me, clacking his teeth. “That what you like, tank?”
“Go away,” the young woman said.
“What’s that static?” The man swiveled his face back to her, and his voice lost its teasing veneer. He leaned down, close enough to kiss. “You mind re-sending that?”
“She said go away,” I told the lank, greasy hair on the back of his head. “I’d listen to her, I were you.”
“Else what happens?” he asked, yanking a weapon out of his rear waistband and pointing it obliquely in my direction. It was a snub-nosed little zip gun; a cheap, prefab model that looked more like a toy than a weapon. It held a half dozen rounds, and was bored for a 5.5 millimeter shell with a hand-measured powder load. “You’re just a big gun with no armor, topside?”
A chain of memories exploded like synaptic firecrackers. A dropped weapon spitting a burst of flak into the air as mechanical monstrosities swarmed over the walls. The angry roar of a mob vomiting from an alley, waving fists and firebrands. A sneering young prostitute turning his back on credit chips, the whine of an engine as a driver went faster instead of slowing down, and the taste of a gun barrel still slick from a recent cleaning. None of them were mine, but all of them were in my head, blotting out thought. I snatched the gunman’s wrist, jerking his hand off line and pulling him close. His finger convulsed twice around the trigger, and the slide jammed down on a half-ejected shell. I twisted sharply, and his wrist snapped like a chicken bone. I kicked his shin, and backhanded him as he fell. His teeth snapped together, and his cheekbone fractured. I pulled the gun out of his nerveless fingers, and let him finish falling.
I prodded my chest until I found the impact site. I plucked two flattened slugs out of the quad-weaved para-aramid fibers of my coat, and examined the rough patches they’d left behind. The fabric wasn’t rated for ballistics protection, but it had been specifically designed to survive the wear and tear of my daily life. The weave would stand up to more than the little heater the street scrub was packing, and I’d known that as soon as I saw the bulge in his jacket. I probed beneath my coat, and felt fresh bruises along my ribs. No penetration, and no blood. The marks on my skin would fade quickly enough. I thumbed the ejector on the weapon, removed the clip, then racked the slide to dislodge the jammed shell. I removed the cartridges, put them in my coat pocket, and stripped the gun until it was just a pile of parts. By the time I’d finished, the flashbulbs in my head had gone dark, and I was mostly myself again. The big man tried to get up, swaying as he clutched his mangled wrist to his chest.
“You get off at the next stop,” I said, speaking slowly and clearly.
He tried to say something, but the words wouldn’t come out right. So instead, he spit a mouthful of blood at my feet, and added a hand gesture for edification. I watched his hand to make sure he didn’t try for another weapon, and waited for the pain of the injury to really take hold. He lasted about fifteen seconds before his adrenaline reserve went dry, and the shakes started. He wasn’t going into shock, but all the feel-good spurts that kept pain at bay had cycled through. He fell over, almost landing in the spatter of blood on the floor next to my boot. The train slowed, coming into the Canal Station. The pressure jets dried the express. The doors hissed open, and I picked up the tattooed bully boy by his collar. I gave him a gentle shove down the aisle, and he shuffled onto the platform without a backward glance. He melted into the crowd, catching no more than three or four stares before the commuters forgot they’d even seen him. People got into the other cars, but no one joined us up front. The doors closed, and the train took off again. I picked up the stripped down weapon, and put the pieces in my pocket.
We rode in silence for a time, the train rocking slightly as it accelerated. My railway companion went back to picking at her sleeve, and watching me out of her peripheral vision. The wave view switched to a report on the air reclamation project, claiming that the atmospheric damage done during the Conflict was indeed being reduced. The reporter parroted the numbers, but it would still be decades before we were likely to get anything like a sunny day through the chemical clouds weapons like the Erebus warheads had injected into the sky. There were empty noises about the successes other cities were experiencing, and the usual statements about unity from the world’s remaining redoubts. The reporter sounded like she was trying to believe it, even as she signed off.
The intercom buzzed, and the engineer announced the next stop at 72nd Street. The train slowed, and slid onto another track. The air lock opened, and the High Line chuffed its way inside. The jets blew, and the rain drained away. I glanced out the window. Creepers and vines twisted from the station’s eaves like living nooses, sweat dripping from their bitter ends in the warmth. Brass birds sang tinny tunes from gilded rails, and the floor was a mosaic of greens nature had never intended nor condoned. The benches were actual wood, and algal lamps cast emerald light at regular intervals. They brightened as the train approached, pushing the platform’s shadows back into the corners as they tried to purify the newly acquired atmosphere.
“Babylon Station, platform seven,” the engineer said as the seals popped, and the doors slid open. I put my hat back on and stood awkwardly, bent nearly double as I shuffled out the door.
The crowd parted around me, but most were too intent on boarding or disembarking to gawk. Gardeners were jaded, and to them I was just another sight to see. I repaid their indifference in kind as I stood on the platform and took internal inventory. Every major muscle group ached, but like the Echoes the aches felt dull and fuzzy around the edges. I stretched, but nothing cried out when I did. My mouth was dry, and tasted like metal. I flexed my fingers, my neck, and my jaw as I waited for the last shakes of the adrenaline spike from earlier to pass. All around me people got on, and people got off. They moved in eddies and currents that had no real rhyme or reason to them. Commuters checked their terminals, glanced at schedule screens, and adjusted cheap filter masks or re-settled satchel straps. Someone tapped my elbow. I twitched, but when I turned around the young woman with the red curls was looking up at me.
“Yes?” I asked.
“I wanted to tell you that I’m sorry,” she said.
“I… I heard about what happened,” she said. “To your… I mean…”
“Romulus,” I said.
She nodded, and tried to smile. It was a little nervous, and more than a little bent around the corners, but there was sincere effort in it. “I saw it on the news a few days ago, and I wanted to let you know someone cared.”
“Thank you.” I nodded, and after a long moment managed to get out, “That’s kind of you to say.”
“No, thank you,” she said. She tried to say something else, but it wouldn’t come. I nodded again to let her know I understood. She stuck out her right hand. “My name’s Melissa.”
“Pollux.” I extended my hand. She touched her palm to the inside of my wrist, and I did my best to return the gesture. She pressed her skin to mine for a long moment, then broke the contact. I fished the flattened slugs out of my pocket and held them out to her.
“What’s this for?” she asked, tentatively cupping her hands.
“A souvenir.” I gave her the best smile I had left, dropping the two crushed metal discs into her hands. The loudspeaker announced final boarding for the Express, and Melissa glanced over her shoulder.
“I have to go,” she said. “Thank you, again.”
She stepped back into the front car just as the doors hissed closed. Melissa grabbed an overhead bar, and looked out the window at me. I nodded to her as the train revved its engine, and the far side of the air lock opened. The train surged back into the storm. I watched until it was gone, and the lock irised closed behind its departing lights. I stood there for a long time, trying to savor the good deed, as well as the temporary quiet between my ears it had brought. When the warmth on my wrist had faded to a memory, I walked through the station. I tossed my ticket into the collection bin, and deposited one piece of the confiscated pocket pistol into each trash can I passed. Feeling a little lighter, I took the stairs down to the Arcade.
The Arcade was a living promenade. A double-level triumph of polished stone and patterned tile, its wide walkways were studded with benches and cafes. Overhead aqueducts poured reclaimed water into pools from the mouths of fanciful gargoyles. Ivy climbed the legs of the support arches, and palm fronds nodded in the light mist thrown up from the basins. Statues carried flower pots, and the scents of lilies, violets, roses, and marigolds drifted on the air. The glass ceiling was patterned in pale blues and off-whites, trying to hide the stain of the sky beyond. It was clean, spacious, and the only echoes I heard were from the splashing fountains and my own footfalls.
I headed northeast on the ground floor parkway. I passed niches holding intimate restaurants and fitness centers. The occasional juice bar was identified by potted fruit trees near the doorway, and pharmacies were discreetly marked with a blue caduceus. There were walkways running off at regular intervals that connected the Arcade with the rejuvenated penthouses and reclaimed aeries where the city’s elite made their homes. Spartans stood guard on some of the doors, their red uniforms and gold badges a warning to anyone who might start trouble. I passed musicians strumming chords for credits near the rest stations, and small parks where modern art sculptures doubled as play places for children during earlier hours. Rubber game pieces sat on pre-made tables set in the bench tops all around, giving the minders and parents something to occupy themselves with while the younger ones played. The locals who were still around at this hour strutted like exotic birds, all puffed-out chests and brightly colored plumage. A woman with a feathered mane the color of a pomegranate perched on the second floor and lectured about poetry. A couple in pure white exercise garb showed off artificially tanned biceps and nut-brown thighs as they strolled arm-in-arm. Flocks of young people old enough that curfew no longer applied to them fluttered here and there, breaking off and re-forming in complex patterns I could see, but couldn’t fully comprehend.
There were other animals in the Arcade too, if you knew where to look. A man in a collared shirt with his long hair tied back in an elaborate braid looked like he fit right in at first glance. He was neat, clean, shaved, and sober, but his shoes were worn down at the heels, and his smile was a little too quick, and a little too friendly. I saw a girl, and what looked like her older sister, both of them in hip-shot skirts and sleek tops. The clothes were on the ragged edge of fashion, though, and their eyes were too wary, too watchful for the safety and security of the marble mile. Cuckoos never blended in completely, but they could go for days, sometimes weeks, before their camouflage wore off. Sometimes they managed to find a place to crash, and a few lucky ones even managed to remain part of the up-town scene for a while before they were sent back to the slums where they’d snuck in from.
The cuckoos weren’t the only refugees from the under districts trespassing in the Arcade. On the upper walk, a broad-shouldered black man in a red vinyl vest leaned against a column while he stroked a hand down a svelte, older man’s bearded cheek. A man and a woman in blood-red boots and scarlet half-coats sauntered down a side hallway. Their eyes were sly, and on the lookout for an audience. Several crimson sisters stretched out on a collection of benches, paying very close attention to everyone who walked by. Foxes wanted to stand out enough to be noticed by those looking to exchange credits for a good time, but not enough to draw the wrong kind of attention from the local authority.
I passed a wishing well guarded by a serpentine stone dragon when I caught a flash of red in my peripheral. A shapely sprite reclined in the marble coils, her long legs tucked under her. Her almond eyes went wide at the sight of me, and she smiled. It was equal parts pleasure and fear, that smile, as if it couldn’t quite decide what it wanted to be. I stopped and turned, filling the entrance to the little grotto.
“See something you like?” I asked.
“Isn’t that my pitch?” she asked. “And it’s hard to tell. You’re blocking out all the light over there.”
“They make you too big?”
I shook my head. “They made everything else too small.”
“Or maybe just small enough,” she said, dropping me a wink. She fished a portable puffer out of her pocket, taking her time to get it out and between her lips. The pose emphasized the curve of her chest, and drew more attention to her top drawer as she took a deep drag from the vaporizer.
“Maybe,” I said with a nod.
She held the vapor in her lungs for a moment, then blew thin, curling streams of white mist from her nostrils. A red gemstone winked on the left side of her nose, and her smile changed to a wide, vulpine grin. “Most men like a tight fit.”
“Then I imagine you’re a popular girl.”
She laughed, un-tucking her legs to cross one thigh over the other. She wore dark tights, and they made a soft swish as she put her goods on display. She leaned forward, elbow on her knee and her chin resting in her palm. “So are you looking for a date tonight?”
“Already got one, I’m afraid.”
She pouted and took another hit off the auto-smoke. “Lucky girl.”
“Who said it was a girl?”
She laughed again, blue mist burbling from her painted lips. “So what are you waiting for?”
“When was the last time you were down in the Hole?”
“Double zeroes today,” she said, the corners of her mouth turned down in an expansive frown. “Not counting the ticks till I go back down either.”
“Which ditch would get me down fastest?”
“West side lifter was cranking slow,” she said after a thoughtful moment. “East and South were taking crowds no problem when I came up. Cleaning crews went through most of the side tunnels earlier, and a flock of redbirds went down the Tripe at a double time around half day.”
I took a minute to absorb that, frowning slightly. “Did they hit the El?”
“That’s the word I heard.”
“What got the flock moving so fast?”
She shrugged, blowing vapor at the ceiling. “Haven’t seen a sister since it happened. I could find out for you, if you want to walk me around on your arm for a quarter and change?”
“How much would that cost?”
She considered, taking another hit off her puffer before tucking it back into her pocket. This time when she grinned, the vapor dribbled between her teeth and made her dark eyes flash. “For you? Nothing but the clock.”
“Short on ticks already,” I said, touching the brim of my hat. “Thanks.”
“No skin, no chaff,” she said, leaning back into her arched recline. “If your date stands you up, you know where to find me.”
I picked up my pace, and headed toward the center of the Arcade. The crowds grew thicker, and the faces in it changed. There were officials in tailored attire, and servants wearing clean, black uniforms. There were laborers and white collars, serene uptown ladies and gray-garbed technicians among the flashy flocks, but what really set the center of the Arcade apart from its outer wings was the sense of purpose. Everyone had somewhere to be, and they were busy getting there with all possible speed.
Three kilometers from the train station I reached the Alepotrypa Corridor. A huge collection of lifts and stairs, The Corridor allowed access to every level of the facility, including the mass transit stairways. Hidden speakers announced maintenance and delays, and lighted signs provided directions for those trying to find their way. Enterprising cuckoos stood by in second-hand suits, some of them holding signs, and offered information with a smile and an extended hand, hoping for a tip or two as they advised travelers of the fastest way to get where they wanted to be. I walked past, keeping my hands close. The human current was fast, even at this hour, but people made room when they saw me coming. I joined the lane for those going down, and did my best not to loom.
The first basement level connected to the Low Way, and it contained an island of shops and storefronts that stretched three city blocks in all directions. Glassed-in doors led to underground garages, or to small cul-de-sacs where travelers could hire a hack. Public terminals glowed near the doors, and quick fix shops filled little niches. Whether someone needed a repair job on a comm link, a protein snack and a caffeine rush, or just a boot shine, there were all sorts of merchants ready to provide service with a smile. Most people going down got off there. Two stories past the underground road was the subway entrance, where brushed steel gleamed and the air smelled of strong disinfectant. Update boards were hung above the doors, and ticket machines were stacked ten deep on either side of the doors to make sure there was no shortage during rush periods. The trickle of people who hadn’t been going to the Low-Way got off there. I took the next turn down the stairs, and kept going.
Two stories down from the subway, deep enough that the rumble of the trains was barely a whisper, was a wide, circular drain that felt like the bottom of a well. There were no chairs or tables down there; no planters or music like there was above. There were no loiterers or loungers either, though the half-filled bottles and discarded plastic wrappers suggested there might have been some in the not-too-distant past. The only real features in the drain were the stained mosaic floor, and an unlabeled stone archway. The door had been painstakingly carved like the roots of a huge, forked tree. I paused, and glanced around the empty space. I took a last, deep breath, then hunched my shoulders and entered the Elysium Stair.
The Stair was wide and arched, meant to seem huge and imposing so travelers would never feel claustrophobic as they headed into the deeper levels of the underground. I didn’t have to duck at all to fit, once I was inside. The steps weren’t cracked, but they were worn from years of people coming up and going down. Water dripped somewhere above, and in the light of ancient arc sodium lamps I made out relief carvings along the upper walls and ceiling. When the lights flickered it created the illusion of movement, and the carvings seemed to twitch in a complex, wordless shadow play all around me. It was like the mildewed idols and fallen angels engraved all around watched me enter their world, glancing at each other as I approached, but then decided to let me pass.
I was three stories down the curving stair when I smelled it; a slick, pungent scent like citrus gone sour. It crawled up the stairs toward me like a warning, growing stronger with every step. Next came the heat, which made the walls bead with sweat. Most of the lamps along the walls were broken, or the bulbs were blown out, and had yet to be replaced. The intricate carvings gave way to spray paint hieroglyphics that slithered along the walls, their messages rendered illegible by patches of faintly glowing mold. I passed a ragged man asleep on a landing, and a trio of razor girls with their short skirts and flick blades, but saw no one else on the Stair. The crowded, jostling journey I’d expected was like walking through a tomb. I counted the steps, and found the exit right where it was supposed to be.
I stepped through the arched doorway onto a gallery seven stories above the cavernous nadir of the city. Over my head, massive rock and steel arches supported the stone ceiling like the ribs of some great beast. Between the ribs were huge frescoes where forgotten gods and dead heroes looked down from the flaking heavens, and daystar cluster lamps cycled through flickering star sequences to create the illusion of a night sky. Once the timers ticked over they’d be back to full power, tricking residents into feeling like it was daytime. Below me stretched a barely controlled landscape of twisted trees, thick fronds, and dark flowers. I thought, and not for the first time, it’s what the devil would have made if he’d been put in charge of Eden.
The underground forest had started life as a beautiful park so those living underground wouldn’t forget the sight and smells of nature when they’d fled from the Hyperion to the subterranean shelters during the Conflict. When the war was declared over, and those with influence and position had moved up to the Arcade, it left only the powerless, the poor, and the unwanted scrabbling down below. The forest, like those who lived around it, had been left to its own devices. Since then the trees had grown wild and dark, poisoned and mutated by the runoff that trickled down from above until it became a dangerous, wild thing. Bearing toxic fruits, and fed on a steady diet of half-buried bodies no one was going to come looking for, the forest was like a reflection of the district’s soul; violent, dark, and dangerous. Locals called it the Jungle, and it was a fitting name.
As I stared down at the canopy I listened as the roar of engines played a counterpoint to the mating calls of roadhouse revelry going on down below. Flashes of neon played across the trees, but the lights never reached the heart of the park. Figures moved around the edges, stalking, testing, shouting, and probing for a weakness while showing their own strength. I sniffed, and grunted. The whole district reeked of rot and ruin, sweat and smoke. A weapon discharged somewhere, but no one seemed to pay it much mind. It likely hadn’t been the first that night, and it definitely wouldn’t be the last.
“You need a guide, big man?” a young voice asked. I glanced to my right, and saw a skinny boy with the ashy complexion of someone who’d spent his whole life living in the half-light of Babylon Proper. His pupils were wide and glassy, and his skinny arms were ropy with lean muscle where they poked out of his gray-green vest. He held my eyes, and cocked his head like a curious rat. A girl about his age stepped out from behind a support column, folding her arms and leaning back against the stone. Her hair was a frizzy, colorless top knot, and she wore a spiker stick at her waist like a sword.
“Jungle don’t play,” she said, looking me up and down. “Eat you up, you set a foot wrong.”
“Social service?” I asked, raising an eyebrow. The boy laughed, and the girl frowned. I looked the two of them over. “A coin for the news. Anything happening on the East Wall?”
“East Wall? Man, how am I supposed to know details on the other side of town?” the boy asked.
“Don’t need it fresh,” I said. “Just so it isn’t spoiled.”
The boy made a show of frowning, thinking it over. He stroked his chin, and the downy hair growing on it. He glanced over his shoulder, as if checking to make sure no one was going to steal his gossip. Despite the crowded confines on the top deck no one came within three meters of us.
“I could give it to you, if you got a pretty to pay.”
“Show, then tell,” the girl said, one hand sliding down to her hip. The baton crackled slightly as she took the safety off. I sighed, took out a credit token, and held it out in my palm. The boy reached for it, but I closed my fingers fast.
“Look with your eyes,” I said. The boy laughed like he thought it was actually funny.
“Easy money, aye,” he said. “East Wall’s quiet. No bumps, breaks, bruises, or busts.”
“And between here and there?” I asked. The girl opened her mouth to say something, but her compatriot shrugged his shoulders.
“Little of this, little of that,” he said, not committing to anything. I waited. He rubbed the back of his neck, and heaved a sigh like he was taking a bad bet. “Scavengers been active down by the topless trickle. Bad enough the redbirds came down to spank ’em for it. Green Boys are up to tricks on the South Wall. Nothing pinging Northside.”
I opened my hand, and the kid made the credit disappear. I dug in my pocket, and tossed him a second coin. He caught it, clicked his heels, and clapped his fist to his heart. The girl shut off her lightning rod, but made no other move until her partner nudged her shoulder. They set off southward, slipping into one of the side streets.
I considered what the kid had said. Taking the central stairs to the ground floor near the Memorial Fountain, the one with the headless figure straddling the basin, was the quickest way to get where I was going. If the Scavengers had claimed that territory, and they’d been active enough to get the Spartans called down to deal with them, then that was a risk best not taken on a whim. Spartans almost never came down to Babylon Proper, and when they did they came in fire teams and they didn’t ask questions. The paramilitary Green Boys, a self-appointed gangland militia, were no better or worse than any of the other color guards roaming the gutters of this district. The south side was closer to where I was standing, especially since none of the public transit was likely to be in working order down here. I asked a grease cart pusher for the time, and looked out over what little I could see of the under district from the height I was at. I weighed the fired shot against the time I would save. I decided it would be safer to take the long way around.
I headed north, avoiding the clots of people congregating near the food carts and fermentation tents. I descended the broad spiral stairs near the north wall, pushing through a throng of shaven-headed men and women in hand-dyed robes. The cultists held out one hand for alms, and kept the other tucked under their arms near the shivs they kept concealed up their sleeves. Down at the ground level the boulevards were busy beneath the thick canopy of the over riotous plant life, though not precisely overflowing. Choppers roved the open lanes in twos and threes, the riders revving their cycles’ engines and howling along with their machines as they skirted the walks close enough to reach out and touch people on foot. Ragged enclaves stood around burn barrels like wise men in trances, passing cloudy bottles of foul-smelling hooch and telling stories none of them really believed. Night criers strutted and preened, as sensual and dangerous as big cats as they plied their trade. They kept one hand near their weapons, even while offering come-hither smiles to anyone who looked like they might have the credits to pay.
It was, more or less, an average night in Babylon Proper.
I skirted the charcoal dens that reeked of fungal incense and broken dreams. I stepped wide around flesh barkers haranguing the crowd to come inside and sample their wares. I passed boutique-of-the-week hock shops where the signs were the latest in a long list of names scratched into the stones, as well as slick looking credit lenders whose doors were flanked by over-muscled head busters. The recycling canisters were just as crowded as the streets, and the only things bigger than the rats and roaches were the feral cats who held court in the cluttered confines of the alleyways. I got the usual assortment of eyes and whistles from the crowd, but I expected that. A cycle roared by close enough to kiss, but I didn’t give it the satisfaction of flinching and the rider didn’t come around for a second pass. He’d showed his friends he wasn’t scared of me once, and once was enough. No one tried to play King of The Street with me, which was a pleasant change. It took fifteen minutes longer than my usual route, but my head was clear and I had a pleasant stretch in my legs by the time I reached the glorified through street that was Orpheus Court.
The street didn’t look like anything special at a glance. There were three or four doorways, and a few iron balconies leaning precariously over the pavement. It wasn’t wide enough for vehicles, and black sludge was caked between the paving stones like plaque in an unkempt smile. A wrought iron sign was bolted to the brickwork above a stairway leading down to a basement door, perhaps a dozen meters down the street. Candle flames turned the open cut-outs of the sign into letters of fire that spelled the words Persephone’s Tears, with an arrow pointing down at a descending staircase. I listened, but didn’t hear the brassy call of a trumpet, or the smoky tones of a saxophone. I smiled to myself as I started down the stairs. It seemed I’d made it in time for the show after all.
The taproom was a still frame of a time I’d never known. The ceiling was high, the lights were low, and the atmosphere was fragrant with smoke the color of fading starlight. A U-shaped bar accented in subdued brass curved around a central support pillar, and a stage big enough for a full band took up the far wall. Tables were scattered in something resembling a floor plan, and booths along with high tables were carved into the stone walls. In the corner, a sump pump was hidden behind a potted plant like a dirty secret. The stage curtains were pulled at the moment, and none of the musicians were in evidence. Slightly tinny recordings of past performances drifted from the overhead speakers.
My arrival didn’t go unnoticed. Heads swiveled toward the door, and a few of the regulars raised their glasses to me. The ones who still wore unit caps and their single rank tag around their necks, anyway. A few of the other patrons gawked, and one couple at the far end shot to their feet, unsure whether to sit or run. I nodded to the toasts, and ignored the rest. I took off my hat, crossed to the bar, and leaned on the dark wood. The barkeep came around the crescent, wiping his hands on a gray cloth that might have been white when the days were bright and the world was younger. He was old and bald, with the broad shoulders of a man used to hard work and the wide belly of one who’d enjoyed the fruits of his labors. He smiled when he saw me, his ceramic dental implants the same color as his heavy, bushy mustache.
“Pollux my friend,” Omar said, tucking the towel into his back pocket. “I can always tell when you are here.”
“Is it the hitch in the crowd?” I asked.
“That, and Medea told me to expect you.” The bartender’s smile faded, and he touched his fingers to his lips, then to his forehead before casting his hand up toward the heavens. “My deepest sympathies for your loss.”
“Thank you,” I said, setting a small stack of credits on the bar. “Did I miss her set?”
“No, you’re just in time.” A hint of Omar’s smile returned to his eyes. “Is there anything I can get you?”
“Do you have a bottle of my usual?”
“Of course,” he said with a small, sad smile. “I set it aside earlier. I thought you might need it.”
“Remains to be seen,” I said. Omar nodded. He reached beneath the bar, and brought up a square-cut glass bottle that had seen a fair amount of use. He set a glass next to it, and I smiled slightly. It would have been a water glass for any other patron, and a tall one at that. I’d be able to pour a generous taste into it at best. “What’s that for?”
“To maintain your dignity,” Omar said. “You cannot toast a man’s memory drinking straight from the bottle.”
I picked up the bottle, and took the glass in my free hand. I claimed a high table that had been carved into the rear wall, and sat on the contoured concrete stump that served as a chair. I placed the bottle in the center of the table, and set the glass in front of me. I reached into my inside pocket and removed a wide, oblong case. I laid the black box next to the bottle. I settled my hat on a wall hook just as the speakers snipped off, and the musicians filed back to their seats on the stage. I twisted the cork out of the bottle, and sniffed the heady perfume. I poured a drink.
“Ladies and gentlemen we thank you for your patience and patronage this evening,” a smooth, cultured voice purred over the speakers. “For our midnight showing we are privileged to present a true treasure in Babylon below. The muse that soothes the savage beasts even in the heart of the Jungle, Persephone’s Tears is pleased to welcome back to its humble stage, the sultry siren Miss Medea Greene.”
The lights dimmed, and the music started. The smooth notes of a saxophone slithered through the air, followed by the soft brass rain of the cymbals. The trumpet cleared its throat. A bass thrummed like a heartbeat. The spot lit up, and like magic, a woman was there on the stage. Her olive skin gleamed, and her dress was the same sleek ebony black as her hair. One eye was closed, the full lashes like angel down on her cheek, and the other was covered by the peekaboo fall of her bangs. She caressed the microphone with red-tipped fingers, and pursed her full lips. The music slowed, stretched, and the room held its breath. Then Medea sang, and the pot boiled over.
The song came together in a wave, crashing over the audience. A fast-paced, pulse-pounding tune about racing for the Gates, running through the dark, and crouching down, down low while the hammers of artillery rang high. The music got softer, and the lights grew dimmer, until the audience was straining their eyes and their ears at the same time. Underground Refugees spiraled lower and lower, until there was no light left on the stage, and no air left in the room. Nothing but the sound of a sharp heel knocking on wood like a fist on the inside of a coffin. Then that faded, too.
Thunder sounded in the cave as everyone applauded. Hoots and whistles filled the space as the lights came back up, and Medea flashed a fierce, white grin. I raised my glass to her. She glanced my way for a moment, then looked back out at the crowd.
“Hit it, boys,” she said, and they were off again.
Black Balloons was next on the set list, and tables cleared to make room for the dancers as the throbbing beat drew couples out of their seats. Jewel of the Jungle followed it, a throaty jive piece that called for refills all around. When I heard the opening bars of Tin Pot Soldiers I turned away from the stage, and drank my drink.
The date wine tasted like bad memories. It was the slow burn of long nights waiting in a hollowed-out mountain, with the constant pulse of a Hyperion distress signal digging its fingers into my skull. It was the flavor of empty victory celebrations, held beneath darkening skies as black stains spread across the stratosphere above scorched earth and shattered enemy ships. It was the salt of dozens of incendiary funerals over too many years. I swallowed hard, and clenched my teeth on the aftertaste. When I was sure the first drink was going to stay down, I poured another glass. I set the bottle aside, thumbing the cork back into place. I picked up the black case.
The case was real leather over contoured steel. Empty, it weighed half a kilogram, and full it weighed slightly less than three quarters. There were nine ridges along the top and bottom, and two interior hinges opposite a small, black thumb switch. The edges were rubbed smooth from handling, and the leather was raw along the front cover where Romulus’s name had once been stenciled. I turned the box over in my hands one more time, then flicked the latch. A red-and-white starburst looked up at me from the interior cushion, the black silhouette of an Agamemnon cannon in the center of the metallic explosion. The medal hung from an electric blue ribbon that disappeared beneath the velvet pillow cradling the award.
It was an Arms of Armageddon, one of a few thousand such medals given to survivors of the battle on the plains of Megiddo that marked the opening salvo of the Hyperion War. It was the first major ambush humanity had set for the Hyperion fleet, and the invaders had paid a heavy cost when they’d underestimated our forces. We’d knocked a dozen of their city-sized ships out of the sky, and left swaths of wrecked battle armor and crashed vehicles stretched away to the horizon. One of these tin clusters hung in my personal display case along with seventeen other citations and awards. Eighty-seven other Arms hung on my memorial wall; the last remnants of the others who’d follow me off that battlefield. Romulus’s would be the eighty-eighth. I tossed back my second glass, and poured another. My hand was still steady, and my eyes remained clear.
It had become a gallows tradition that my troops left me their stars, but more often than not they left me more than just the medals. There would be a journal chronicling what happened, a note trying to explain, or one last request of me placed somewhere inside the case. They wanted to tell me it wasn’t my fault, offer me some comfort, or remind me that I’d gotten through worse than this. Some of them carved messages on the lid under the leather, and some wrapped the note around the medal itself. I carefully lifted the cluster, running my fingers over the starburst’s spikes to feel for fissures. I stroked along the underside of the case, then carefully lifted the cushion. Behind the medal, the length of blue ribbon was bound with a wire tie. I undid the wire, and unspooled the ribbon. Inside was a folded piece of paper. I plucked it out. My guts clenched in a way that had nothing to do with the wine.
The paper was dingy, smudged, and folded over a dozen times. Blood stained one side, and it crackled as I unfolded the page. I tried to mentally prepare for the message. I expected an embarrassed apology penned almost as an afterthought, or maybe a simple explanation that he’d tried life without Remus, and he was giving himself an honorable discharge. A black joke for a black act, it was just the sort of thing Romulus would have said. I was ready for anything, except the four words written in Romulus’s ugly, unmistakable block print. The dreams are real.
The words sat on my chest, heavy, hard, and immobile. I pushed, but they wouldn’t budge. In my head they resounded in Romulus’s deep, deliberate voice that could be heard over cannon fire if he wanted it to be. Those words drowned out the music, and beat in every pulse hammering through my temples. They went around and around, growing in volume until the words and the Echoes blended into a soundless roar loud enough to split my skull open from the inside.
I shut my eyes, but the darkness brought no relief. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t think, and panic clogged my nostrils like tar smoke from a burning fuel tank. My mind’s eye flashed like a camera. Omar’s face, with half his skull caved in, and bone fragments glistening wetly in the wound like broken glass. Another flash. Splintered tables spattered with blood, and the room filled with the sharp tang of fresh death. In my head the speakers were playing You Just Can’t Go Home Again, and skipping on the last line of the chorus as the world started going sideways.
I jammed my left hand into my mouth, and bit down hard. The burned skin on my palm tugged, stretched, then split with a high, piercing sensation that hit me like cold water. Light exploded in my head, and the shock lanced through my nerves. I took a deep breath through my nose, drinking in the sour smells of basement whiskey and crowd sweat. Sound rushed back in, and settled to its normal decibel level. A heavyset man two tables down had a forgotten drink halfway to his mouth, staring at me over the lip of the glass. A young woman two tables away in the opposite direction had her back against the wall, her eyes looking anywhere but at me. The couple who had been so indecisive when I’d first walked in had bolted for the side exit, leaving their drinks mostly untouched. A few others eyed me with the not-quite-alarmed expression people usually wore when something threw off the rhythm of a room. No one was bleeding, no one was screaming, and I was still sitting at my own table. No one had drawn a weapon, and there was no mad rush for the doors. I took my hand out of my mouth and made a slow fist. It hurt, but not enough for anything to be permanently damaged. My mouth tasted like blood, so I washed it out with my third glass of wine.
The click-clack cadence of high heels on the stone floor caught my ear. The walker had a strong, swift stride, and the crowd didn’t slow them down. The tang of black tobacco reached my nose; a unique blend not usually found even in a classy dive like the Tears. I looked up, and there she was, with her lips barely curled at the corners and a slender Ifrit cigarette burning between the first and second fingers of her left hand.
“Hey there soldier,” Medea said. Her eye flicked to my hand, and then up to my face as her smile died. “Pollux… what’s wrong?”
Laughter burbled up my throat like vomit, and I swallowed hard before it could choke me. I looked down at my hand, watching as thin rivulets of pale blood ran from the oblong punctures. I tried to say something, but nothing came out when I opened my mouth. Medea approached slowly, making sure she stayed in my field of vision. She touched my shoulder, and a tiny spasm rolled down my back.
“Will you be all right if I leave you for a few minutes?” she asked. I nodded. “I’ll be right back.”
She was gone for four minutes and fifteen seconds. She set a glass of bourbon on the table, then laid several gauze pads and a bandage roll beside it.
“Hand,” she said, holding out her own, palm up.
“Medea, I can clean this up.”
“I didn’t say you couldn’t,” she said, not unkindly. “Now give me your hand.”
I held out my left hand. Medea ran her fingers gently over the bite marks, then rolled my hand over and looked at the palm. She didn’t turn a single hair at what she saw.
“I’m going to disinfect this, then wrap it up,” she said. “Want something to bite down on?”
“I think that’s what got me into this mess.”
She splashed alcohol along both the burns and bite marks, careful to keep her fingers out of harm’s way in case I clenched my fist out of reflex. I sat quietly, watching the liquor go a shade lighter as it drank up my blood. She dabbed the bourbon away, lifting my hand to look carefully at the contact burn. When she was satisfied it didn’t need additional care, she put gauze pads over the punctures. She wrapped my hand carefully, her movements smooth and sure. She tied the ends off, inspecting her work before she let go of my hand. I flexed it gently, then relaxed.
“Are people still staring?” I asked.
“Yes, but mostly at me,” she said, taking a long drag on the tail end of her cigarette before stubbing it out in an ashtray. “As I’m sure you noticed, this dress has a slit almost up to my hip. Do we need to get you some air?”
I closed my eyes, and listened to my breathing. After a moment I shook my head. “No. Safety’s back on.”
Medea picked up the remainder of the bourbon and slid onto the high seat across the table. She smoothed her hair down over the side of her face, and ran her hands over her dress to push out any wrinkles. She held her glass in both hands, regarding me. I looked back at her. The band played on, a tune I didn’t recognize this time, but which had a lot more brass than strings in it.
“This is the part where you tell me what’s wrong,” Medea said.
“Yes, it is.” She sipped at the bourbon, leaving a pair of crimson crescents around the edge of the glass.
I told her. She listened quietly, taking occasional sips from her glass. Her attention never wavered. She didn’t interrupt. She let me tell the story in my own way, and in my own time. By the time I reached the end, the band had gone back on break, and the taproom buzz had faded to a dull roar that was all words but no meaning. I emptied the dregs of the wine bottle into my glass, then thumbed the cork back into the neck.
“So what do you think?” I asked after we’d sat in the noisy quiet for several more minutes.
“I think I’m going to go back stage, scrub my face off, and change,” she said, setting her empty glass aside. “Then I’ll come right back here, and you can walk me home.”
I glanced at the clock. Even in the gloom I could see it was nowhere near three.
“Isn’t it a little early for you?”
“I’ve been waking up wretched the past few weeks.” Medea shrugged her left shoulder. “My eyes are open less than ten minutes before I’m bent over the waste bowl and emptying my stomach. I saw a nurse about it, and she told me it was probably stress and a belly bug. She gave me a shot and told me I should take a break whenever I can grab one. Marco can cover the crowd. He’s been itching to try his pipes, so I’ll give him some time in the spot tonight.”
She slipped off her seat, and turned to me. She carefully folded up Romulus’s note, and tucked it back under the medal. She closed the case, and set it down in front of me.
“I’ll be ten minutes,” she said.
I picked up my glass, and swirled it slightly. Shadows and ghosts chased each other amid gun smoke and grief. Between the ripples, I caught glimpses of a man I barely knew. He was younger, straighter, and he carried his doubts with greater ease. I drank him down neat, and held my breath until he was gone.
“I’ll be right here,” I said.